You can eat very, very well in Istanbul. Even with zero language skills, the point-and-nod method can get you amazing kebabs, shwarma, roast chestnuts, the donut-shaped pastry known as simit, and enough baklava to put you in a honey coma.
And the street food scene has excellent company with a handful of modern restaurants serving what they call New Istanbul, or New Anatolian cuisine: using contemporary twists or cross-cultural techniques (French, Japanese) to update traditional Turkish dishes.
One such place, Yeni Lokanta, is just steps from the main street in the Beyoglu neighborhood. It has a clean Mediterranean feel with blue tiles, sexy lighting, moody jars of preserved lemons lining the back wall and a welcoming horseshoe bar in front.
For a splurge, you can go all-in on a roughly $100 tasting menu that includes 12 dishes. I, however, overdid it during the holidays. So I played in the a la carte section instead.
But what a playground: there are about a dozen salads and mezze to chose from, including a lettuce-mint salad with yogurt & tangerines, dried peppers stuffed with tamarind rice & pine nuts, and bulgur wheat salad with sour cherries. We started with an olive oil braised sea bass – a cold, tender filet with a lemony tang to it – served with a salad of zucchini noodles.
We ordered the hummus, thinking “How modern can you get with HUMMUS, for Pete’s sake..?” but their version, whipped smooth with tahini, was topped with an excellent salsa of pomegranate seeds, pickled herbs, and roast hazelnuts, giving you a crunch, pop and sting in every bite.
Fried zucchini flowers stuffed with shrimp were crisp, if not a bit muddled inside, and a modernized kofta of beef and lamb mixed with melty halloumi cheese were elevated with a side of vingared parsley and spinach stems.
In the “BIG” section of the menu were a handful of seasonal dishes. We didn’t try the cumin flavored beef ribs, the raki-marinated sea bass, or the roast chicken thigh with hazelnuts and chickpeas, though we saw all of them paraded by on plates to other tables and if my eyes could eat they would have had a lovely meal.
Instead, we shared a grilled octopus served with a bright and tangy version of tabbouleh… lamb shank cooked in a grape and sumac molasses that was incredible, and Yeni Lokanta’s version of manti, a traditional Turkish dumpling. Normally, these teeny dumplings are stuffed with spicy meat, boiled, and served in a tomato-ey yogurt sauce. Here, a large bowl was filled with teeny dumplings stuffed with dried eggplant, and the sauce, while yogurt based, had nothing traditional about it, spotted here and there with flavored oils and chili. Regular readers of this blog know I have a thing for dumplings: these were very good, but very, very rich.
You would think that after all that we wouldn’t have the stomach space or the energy for dessert, but… you would be wrong.
We ordered three. An ice cream cake stuffed with halvah and topped with hazelnuts and chocolate sauce; a salted caramel panna cotta with rose-scented Clementine sauce; and warm baklava pastry stuffed with figs, in a coconut-tahini sauce. The gentlemen at the table, weirdly, preferred the frilly panna cotta; which left us females to polish off the ice cream cake. The baklava was good, though more of a warm fig pastry than a baklava (you tell me I’m getting baklava, I demand to see nuts and honey!!)
Istanbul is truly a tourist heaven – filled with lovely people, lively street scenes, excellent history & museums, and places like this one, which are trying to up the food game for visitors and locals alike…. to make the dining scene on par with other European cities. But these are tough times for tourism, and the little guys like Yeni Lokanta need support.
Do your part. Eat a dumpling.
Kumbaraçi Yokuşu No: 66. Beyoğlu.
Phone: (212) 292 25 50